Eastward Ho! and Home Again at the Museum in Docklands: Jack Lohman, Director of the Museum of London, Explains the Significance of Two Victorian Paintings and Why the Museum Is Delighted to Have Been Able to Acquire Them
Lohman, Jack, History Today
'HENRY NELSON O'NEIL'S 'Eastward Ho!' ... presents nothing beyond what has over and over again been witnessed ... and not a week, or scarcely a day, has passed ... but the silent Thames has been witness to many a sad parting such as that depicted in this canvas.' So said the Illustrated London News in 1858.
On the Thames of the 1850s, around Gravesend and Tilbury, it was a common sight to see requisitioned steamers carrying troops out to conflicts at the corners of the British Empire. It was also a familiar experience for many London families whose relatives and friends had enlisted to watch their loved ones leave for foreign climes in the hope that they would greet them on their return. It is this recognizable experience of embarkation and disembarkation, the epitome of the human cost and impact of such ordeals, that is brilliantly portrayed in Henry Nelson O'Neil's 'Eastward Ho!' (1858) and its companion piece, Home Again' (1859).
The Museum of London has just acquired these paintings, which are two of the most important and iconic works of Victorian art to come to auction in recent times, for a total of nearly 839,000, [pounds sterling] thanks to generous grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund.
The paintings were consecutively exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions of 1858 and 1859, with enormous success. In the first, 'Eastward Ho!', the bell has rung for all the relatives to disembark, and the partings evoke mixed emotions from the crowd. It is August 1857 and the steamer is bound for Calcutta to take troops to the Indian 'Mutiny' (1857-59, otherwise known as the First Indian War of Independence), a defining moment of British rule in India, where imperialism was challenged. When the painting was exhibited in 1858, the horrors of the conflict were fresh in the public mind, and one of the troop ships that returned to Gravesend in 1858 was depicted in O'Neil's second painting, 'Home Again'.
The conflict had evoked a strong response from artists, who on the whole reacted by using the allegorical and religious imagery of martyrdom in such paintings as Abraham Solomon's 'The Flight', Frederick Goodall's 'The Campbells are Coming: Lucknow September 1857', and, most controversially, Noel Paton's 'In Memoriam'. Paton's painting, which depicted women and children about to be murdered by bayonet-wielding sepoys charging through the door, was changed to portray a rescue by Highlanders because of the criticism it provoked. But for all these Indian scenes with their exaggerated heroism and martyrdom, it was O'Neil's paintings of everyday experience at home in England that found most favour with his audience. Predominantly populated by the respectable working class, the paintings' realistic detail, inducing emotions familiar to the viewer, ensured their success. …